How unemployment and the recession is affecting volunteering | Voluntary Sector Network | Guardian Professional

Despite the continuing recession, in recent weeks unemployment figures have thankfully started to recover. However, there are still more unemployed young people than since records began in 1992. For a sector that relies on volunteers, there is a temptation to imagine that this increase in supply makes it a buyers market. Surely, with more people looking for jobs and volunteer opportunities the more selective charities can be, and the less attractive they need to make themselves?

The reality is much more complex, and if charities are serious about getting the best volunteers and employees, high youth unemployment should present a major challenge to recruitment and retention policies.

A large number of young people want a career in which they can make a difference and look to charities for that fulfillment. Given the importance of getting that first big break, this has considerably increased the pool of people interested in volunteering. But simply having a large pool of potential applicants isn’t enough to ensure those people become volunteers and organisations get the best applicants.

If there was ever a moment when charities could succeed on the basis of an engaging vision and mission statement, that time has truly passed. The marketplace has become exceptionally crowded, with more charities offering opportunities to become engaged on previously inaccessible niche issues. There are also clear shifts in how people, especially young people, relate to issues and organisations; they are much more likely to care about a broad range of causes rather than one or two policy areas. These two factors create a worrying challenge for most organisations – more competitors and less ability to expect brand and value loyalty from supporters.

In this context, record numbers of youth unemployment looks less like a large pool of applicants simply waiting to be chosen by charities. We see a complex and nuanced group in need of specific and well-developed recruitment strategies if the best volunteers are to be brought on board. To really understand what those strategies might be though, we need to consider the difficulties and pressure that high unemployment figures present to those looking for work.

In general, the charity sector has always looked for a high level of previous experience. And quite right too, when so much of what organisations do is built on a strong passion and commitment to their cause. However, this tough emphasis on commitment to the cause combined with the competition for jobs means that potential volunteers, now more than ever, need to ensure that any voluntary work gives them the skills and experience they need to get ahead and find full time employment.

Far too many organisations still misguidedly think that people will simply want to work with them because of how committed they are to their organisation’s mission statement. In this recession with a big crowd to stand apart from, young people may care deeply about what an organisation does, but with others operating on issues they may equally care about, the decision as to who will give them a better overall voluntary experience is very much in the hands of the applicant.

To impress the very best volunteers, charities must carefully structure even the smallest voluntary roles. Managers must have a clear plan for how volunteers can develop in their time with the organisation, what skills they need to pick up and what overall offer the charity can make to help them into a full-time role. Volunteers shouldn’t be accepted unless the organisation can help co-create a clear vision with young people of where their time volunteering fits in with their wider career goals, and how their volunteering time helps them to achieve them.

Organisations that can provide a clear path from volunteer to staff member will be most attractive, but for those with less resources more intangible offers such as strong networking opportunities and a commitment to things like personal development plans may also help to show the best potential volunteers a strong reason to apply. This requires more time, effort and preparation from charity managers but it is essential.

With a recession still ongoing and the eurozone in difficulty, high youth unemployment and a massive subsequent demand for positive, engaging voluntary experience is unlikely to disappear, so charities must do more now if they want to stand out from their own crowd and attract the best volunteers.

Sam Bacon is the UK government relations co-ordinator at Global Poverty Project UK

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Paul Champion

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